Who I Was Is Not Who I Am

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For my writer’s group, I read my blog contribution, “I Am Stuck.” It included this line, “The image of what I was is so seared into their minds that they seem unable to see the new man I have become.” One man in the group suggested I explore that line more in-depth. The following is my attempt.

Dear Son,

For over four years now we have been estranged. It causes me pain every day and many nights I close my eyes to sleep with tears coursing down my cheeks. I pray for you almost daily. During that time I ask God to bless your marriage, ministry, education, and work; but I also pray that you will overcome the trials and temptations at which I so miserably failed.

Your mother and brother have told me that you feel you must protect the family from me. That is understandable, especially because you do not remember me when I was at my best. Your older sister and brother can recall the times when we laughed and played, went on camping trips together, fished, boated, swam, and piled in at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for holidays and vacations. Yes, I struggled with depression and anger even then, but I was never sidelined for long by my depression and my anger was infrequent and mostly controlled. Your older siblings braved the moves we made from Indiana to Mississippi and then to Kentucky. Those were adventuresome and blissful days.

That happiness and the love between your mother and me blossomed in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. You were conceived in that love and welcomed into a joyful family. Oh the fun I had caring for you and watching you grow. You were the baby of our college community, too. All the girls wanted to hold you and all the boys wanted to play with you. You were never alone for long. It was Dr. John who cut your hair the first time. We gave you a sucker to distract you from what he was doing. What a sight you were holding a hairy sucker while 18 months of locks were cut away.

Those were the best years of our family and your mother’s and my marriage. We moved back to Indiana and things went well for 28 months more before it all dramatically changed. You were only six years old when I became clinically depressed. It wounds me deeply to think that the times after that are 90% or more of the memories you have of me. It must have been very frightening and uncertain for you.

You remember me as an emotionally distant father. I isolated from the family because my clinical depression was so severe that I could not function as a husband, father, or pastor. There were times, son, when my suicidal ideations were so strong that it took every ounce of energy I possessed to fight them off and prevent myself from carrying them out. When we returned to Eastern Kentucky and I found another job, all of my energy was consumed by the time I got home. You remember my routine as being off to work, come home, and go to bed. It was a seemingly endless cycle. On Saturday I slept all day and after I quit going to church, Sunday became another sleep day. I missed your ball games, lead performance in plays, cantatas in which you were the leading male voice, and a whole lot more. What can I say, son, I did not have the will or the strength to stay engaged. I was just trying to stay alive. Can you ever forgive me for missing so much of your life?

You remember me as an absent father. Your mother asked me to leave our home on three different occasions. The first was in 2001, the second in 2008, and the last in 2009. I will confess to you, my son, that she was fully justified in asking me to leave the second time. I was very sick, severely depressed, angry, and unpredictable. She, and the rest of you for that matter, needed a break from me. However, the separation robbed me of your teenage years from 15 on. While I was away I called nearly every day, wrote letters, and sent monetary support trying desperately to be involved as much as 300 miles separation would allow me. You have expressed hurt when I quit calling you nightly for evening devotions. Son, I will not disclose the reason, but I hope you will accept that there was a roadblock put in my way that I could not overcome. In what was to be my last fatherly talk with you, your mother told me you did not welcome it. I must accept that my four year physical, longer emotionally, absence from you had such an effect as to render my words as that of an intrusive stranger. Although I had little control over my absence, I am sorry I was away, and for the reasons I had to leave. Will you forgive me for being absent during some very important years in your life?

You remember me as an angry father, which was perhaps the most damaging of all your memories of me. When my depression went clinical in November of 1999 it began to steal from me the abilities to do the things I loved. From the time I sensed a call into ministry when I was 14, I began to prepare. A sizable percentage of the money I earned from working with your Uncle John was spent on books to help me prepare for ministry. By the time I entered Bible college four years later, I had already read multiple books on theology, homiletics, evangelism, and the biographies or autobiographies of many heroes of the faith and of our Wesleyan heritage. Your mother and I took a position in ministry three months before we were married and continued in pastoral or educational ministry for the next 23 years without a break. During that time I worked on a graduate research degree and earned a Master’s of Divinity. Depression robbed me of my ability to pastor, teach, and preach. I was angry.

When I started looking for work in the secular world, I soon discovered that employers did not respect my MDiv. or the myriad of applicable experiences I gained from working as a pastor and teacher. There I sat, often with more education and experience than my interviewer, being required to answer such asinine questions like, “Do you think you can do this job?” Sure I could do the job and I could do their job, too, and be better at it. I became angry at the absurdity of it all and feelings of worthlessness and helplessness overwhelmed me.

As your mother began to emotionally withdraw from me, we struggled in vain to communicate with each other and save our marriage. (Please do not take this as a condemnation of your mother. As I fell deeper into depression, she had to become father, mother, and provider.) No matter what or how hard we tried, our marriage could not survive my depression. As my grip on my marriage and our family slipped away, I grew angrier.

I lost it all, son, – my full-time ministry as a pastor/teacher, three other jobs, two demotions, your siblings, our grandchildren, you, and your mother. There is no excuse for my abysmal behavior and I offer none. The more I lost the more livid I became. That is when your mother asked me to leave the second time. There is no reason for you to forgive me except unearned grace, and I pray you can find a way to extend your grace to me.

The good news is I am not that man now. I have prayed for and received forgiveness from God. My relationship with our LORD is more vital than it has ever been in my lifetime. I have attempted to make amends with all I hurt and reconcile with them where possible. In the past I thought I could handle my depressive disorder on my own; you know where that got me. I have given up on that destructive approach and acknowledged my need of help. I am on a medication regimen that works, regularly see a psychiatrist and counselor, participate in two Christian depression groups on Facebook, attend two mental health groups each week, write a blog about depression, and have gathered around me a strong support team. My depression has been stable for over two years now, although, admittedly, I am rarely symptom free.

My anger is under control. For just about the past four years, I have not yelled at anyone. (Save one time when I was severely provoked and it lasted for two words before I recovered my decorum.) Gone are the days when I screamed, intimidated, threw things, and hit things. That has not happened in the past four years, either. There was one time during these years that my anger reached the intensity that it did before on a virtually daily basis, but the outcome was much different. I did not behave in the old way; rather, I walked away and hid myself in a private place until the anger dissipated.

You see, son, I am living II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (NKJV) and I am not the man I used to be.

Thanks to Calvary, I’m not the dad I used to be.
Thanks to Calvary, things are different than before.
As the tears run down my face, I’m trying to tell you,
Thanks to Calvary, I don’t live there anymore.
Written by Bill Gaither, adapted